Happy Friday, chumps and chumpettes! I hope you’ve enjoyed this week of posts, which I’ve decided to call Mia Desperately Attempts to Distract Readers from Noticing that She Still Can’t Access Her Outfit Photos Week. (Well, that’s a semi-lie. Mike gave me two days’ worth of outfit photos that he’d uploaded to his computer, but he resized them funny so I haven’t been able to edit them to my liking. But still.) Today I’ve got a little two-parter book review to share with y’all!
When I got back from my trip down to Irvine over the weekend, I was pleased to find that a package had arrived: copies of Make Yourself Happy and French Milk, both by awesome comicker and all-around cool lady Lucy Knisley! I actually ordered the books back in January, but the order got lost in the shuffle–not surprising, since Lucy is (according to her Twitter account, which I follow assiduously) working on her next book, as well as about a hundred other things at the same time. I emailed her at the beginning of March to check up on my order and she very promptly replied and got my order out, so no harm done!
I’ve been a fan of her diary webcomic, Stop Paying Attention, for what feels like eons now, and also bought a copy of her cute and charming collaboration with Erika Moen, Drawn to You, at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco one year, so I was really jazzed to finally own some of her work in print. I was planning on savoring them, but ended up reading them both the next day in an excited frenzy. For now, I’ll share with you my thoughts on French Milk. (Any errors in fact are mine, as I’m sitting here writing this review without my copy of the work directly in front of me. Bad reviewer, bad!)
French Milk is based on an illustrated travel journal that Lucy kept while on a trip to Paris with her mother at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007. During the trip, Lucy turns 22, visits landmarks and museums, frets about the future, and eats a ton of gorgeous-sounding French cuisine. (Excuse me while I take another bite of my Braunschweiger sandwich before continuing.) The volume is primarily composed of the previously-mentioned illustrated journal, interspersed with photographs taken during the trip; it’s a simple book, but it feels complete.
Now, I may be a little bit different from other readers, because I LOVE reading accounts of other people’s lives and experiences; there’s something automatically compelling about getting that little window into another person’s world for me, and it’s kind of hard to ruin my excitement. Personal biases towards diary enjoyment aside, I loved French Milk!My circumstances are a little bit different from at-the-time Lucy’s (I’m a year older, not an artist, never been to Paris), but I immediately felt connected to the narrative and to the parts of Lucy that we get to see. Her food illustrations make me smile, since whenever I take a trip someplace, when I return my main priority is to tell people about what I ate.
I have to admit that I was pretty surprised to read some negative reviews that focused on Lucy’s depressive or stressed episodes as “complaining” or “whining” (their words, not mine). I really identified with those moments, as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, because those feelings come on just as easily when everything is fine and dandy as they do when your life’s going to pot, and it can be worse when everything’s fine because then you beat yourself up for feeling terrible when you should be enjoying yourself. I promise I’m trying not to get off on a tangent here, but seeing those reviews made me cranky. (And were a reminder of why I shouldn’t read other reviews while I’m writing my own.)
Another common criticism I saw was “lack of depth,” which I also think is bull honky; the story is structured the way it is because it is a travel diary, and when one is recording one’s experiences in the moment, the structure and interpretation of events will necessarily be different from a memoir-style recollection of events that happened in the past. The ability to reflect on a period of time and pull a “deeper,” overarching meaning out of the daily mess of walking and eating and crying and getting rained on comes from that post-period status, and is something that is absurd to expect when one is writing from the period where the end is yet to come. In other words: as a travel diary, it is everything that I expected, and people who didn’t enjoy it need to come up with better reasons because their current reasoning is invalid. (Can you tell that it’s been a while since I’ve written a literary paper? I kind of miss college, guys.)
Uhh, anyway. To discuss the positives instead of just combating the negatives: it’s a funny, realistic depiction of one person’s experiences at a certain place during a certain part of her life, and it got me right in the place where good diaries get me and gave me the warm fuzzies for getting to share in at least a small part of her travels. I’ve never spent so long in one foreign city–the closest experience I have is spending a week or two at my dad’s house in Mexico. Still, I understand the feeling of becoming familiar with an area while still feeling utterly foreign, and the simultaneous excitement and loneliness. (Reminded me of this recent Hairpin article, actually.) And you know what? She actually kind of made me want to visit Paris, which has always been quite low on my travel-priorities list. (The only items lower are Italy and most of the rest of the US.)
As a plus, it’s neat as a current-Lucy fan to look back on her work as a younger artist at a different place in her style; I love looking through artists’ style journeys and early work, so this was great fun. She makes me want to go dig up my own travel journal from the trip that my mom and I took to Germany and Switzerland in spring of 2010, so that I can remember the trip and the person who I was when I was there. Food, travel, diaries; if you like any of the above, check this shit out! (“This shit” being French Milk, not my Germany travel journal. My Germany travel journal is much less compelling.) French Milk is available at Lucy’s online store as well as on Amazon; it’s cheaper on Amazon, but I’m guessing that Lucy gets a better cut of the profits from her own store. I’m a fan of cutting out the middleman as much as possible in these cases anyway.
Oh, and here’s an exciting bonus teaser for the next CMAEoTBM: I introduced my (signed!) copy of Make Yourself Happy to Flat Tire, and this is how she responded:
That’s right, Flat Tire. You chew on the books. You chew on all the books.